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The Terms of Service clearly indicated that all content that you provide to SO Inc is licensed under CC-BY-SA, and that would include your About Me section of your user profile, which SO Inc is actively modifying, without indication, to remove links to a community fundraiser.

You agree that any and all content, including without limitation any and all text, graphics, logos, tools, photographs, images, illustrations, software or source code, audio and video, animations, and product feedback (collectively, “Content”) that you provide to the public Network (collectively, “Subscriber Content”), is perpetually and irrevocably licensed to Stack Overflow on a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive basis pursuant to Creative Commons licensing terms (CC-BY-SA).

Unlike previous versions, there's no exceptions for your content based on the type of content, or whether or not it gets populated with the the public API.

Currently, SO Inc insists that all content is now CC-BY-SA 4.0, which means that all modifications must be indicated.

FAQ version:

In the 4.0 license suite, licensees are required to indicate if they made modifications to the licensed material. This obligation applies whether or not the modifications produced adapted material. As with all other attribution and marking requirements, this may be done in a manner reasonable to the means, medium, and context. For example, "This section is an excerpt of the original." For trivial modifications, such as correcting spelling errors, it may be reasonable to omit the notice.

Full legal text:

Section 3 – License Conditions.
Your exercise of the Licensed Rights is expressly made subject to the following conditions.  
 a.Attribution.  
  1. If You Share the Licensed Material (including in modified form), You must:  
   A. retain the following if it is supplied by the Licensor with the Licensed Material:  
    i. identification of the creator(s) of the Licensed Material and any others designated to receive attribution, in any reasonable manner requested by the Licensor (including by pseudonym if designated);  
    ii. a copyright notice;  
    iii. a notice that refers to this Public License;  
    iv. a notice that refers to the disclaimer of warranties;  
    v. a URI or hyperlink to the Licensed Material to the extent reasonably practicable;  
   B. indicate if You modified the Licensed Material and retain an indication of any previous modifications; and  
   C. indicate the Licensed Material is licensed under this Public License, and include the text of, or the URI or hyperlink to, this Public License.  
  2. You may satisfy the conditions in Section 3(a)(1) in any reasonable manner based on the medium, means, and context in which You Share the Licensed Material. For example, it may be reasonable to satisfy the conditions by providing a URI or hyperlink to a resource that includes the required information.  
  3. If requested by the Licensor, You must remove any of the information required by Section 3(a)(1)(A) to the extent reasonably practicable.

So where does Stack Overflow get the right to modify licensed content without indicating changes?

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  • 9
    If you're downvoting this, can you give some sort of feedback? Do you disagree with Web Head's interpretation of the license? Do you think this isn't a problem? Do you think this is a distraction from other problems? Nov 26, 2019 at 1:14
  • 24
    This could easily be fixed by only allowing moderators and staff to wipe the bio completely instead of selectively removing violations. No content == no possible license concerns. Normally what I do if I have to edit something.
    – animuson StaffMod
    Nov 26, 2019 at 1:17
  • 5
    @animuson Agreed. There's no requirement to share the content, only requirements if you choose to.
    – user287266
    Nov 26, 2019 at 1:22
  • 2
    They could just suspend users who put in such links. As suspension reduces a user's rep to 1, and 10 rep is required for any links to render, this has the side effect of removing (formatted) links. Nov 26, 2019 at 2:37
  • 11
    @animuson: That's not, strictly speaking, the "American Way," is it? I have a better idea: add an edit history to user profiles, or drop the CC licensing for profiles. Or maybe, y'know, SE could simply provide the indicators that the license requires. Otherwise, I suppose we could just continue down the road of increasingly heavy-handed community handling.
    – user102937
    Nov 26, 2019 at 2:42
  • 7
    Also, not for nothing, but I think it would be fair to allow users to revoke SE's license to the content if SE isn't even going to bother hosting the content.
    – user102937
    Nov 26, 2019 at 2:49
  • 7
    @Robert I see an edit history for bios as an entirely pointless and incredibly wasteful use of developer resources that solves absolutely no useful problems. I'd rather not have bios than spend time expanding it that far. And I can't speak as to why our attorneys decided to change thw ording there, I can only trust that they had good reasons to do so.
    – animuson StaffMod
    Nov 26, 2019 at 3:01
  • 6
    @animuson♦: Why not manually add a tag to the text saying it has been modified, as per the licence? Nov 26, 2019 at 3:04
  • 5
    @animuson: Which is why I stated the obvious: simply add the indicator that the license requires.
    – user102937
    Nov 26, 2019 at 3:12
  • 3
    @animuson well, once the wording was changed, it doesn't matter if it was "your attorneys" decided it not, they are not operating independently, they are effectively speaking for the company
    – Lamak
    Nov 26, 2019 at 3:20
  • 3
    @Lamak I'm not sure what your point is. It doesn't make me magically knowledgeable of those reasons.
    – animuson StaffMod
    Nov 26, 2019 at 3:26
  • 14
    @animuson it's reasonable to follow up and ask about the risk here. I'd be surprised if anyone thought through this particular case. I don't know how SE's legal team works, but whenever I've brought things of this nature to my legal department, they've been very grateful that someone didn't just sit on it, assuming the brilliant legal minds must have already thought of every possible scenario. Just because legal looked at something doesn't mean it's bulletproof
    – De Novo
    Nov 26, 2019 at 4:56
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    @Cerberus_Reinstate-Monica The 4.0 license stipulates that you have to indicate what changes were made, you can't simply add "edited", which is why this becomes an issue. Such as interface does not currently exist, and frankly I agree with animuson that it would be a waste of resources to add it. The policy should be, across the board, that staff and moderators can not modify a user's About Me page, they can only wipe it clean. This is also not the first time defacing of profiles instead of wiping them has been a problem.
    – user287266
    Nov 26, 2019 at 16:37
  • 5
    @Cerberus_Reinstate-Monica Don't know. As my question states, either they're violating 4.0 or we're actually still on 3.0. They can't have it both ways.
    – user287266
    Nov 27, 2019 at 14:18
  • 4
    SE can not change the license on content owned by another copyright holder. They can only (falsely) claim they did. Nov 28, 2019 at 10:04

1 Answer 1

1
+25

The question is essentially about whether or not something is legal, and hasn't got an answer in over 13 months, which I think would not have been the case had the OP tried this.

Summary of the matter

The title of this question, and the first bird's eye look at the entire question page left me still wondering what this was about. I had to open a link in the question to find out that: this is all about a link to a fundraiser, which was removed (by SE) from people's profiles without telling them.

The question and answer to which the link points, makes no mention of what fundraiser this was, but I'm certain it was the "GoFundMonica" fundraiser which was made because of this: Monica's situation continues unresolved. Is SE hoping the problem just goes away?

My opinion on the matter

The OP and the ~150 people that upvoted this question will not like what I say below about the legal perspective, so I just want to say that I personally supported Monica through and through and did and still do support anyone that posted a link in their profile to support her. But the question is not "do we like what SE did?" it is "were they on the right side of the law?", and it seems the OP was hoping that the answer is "no", but the answer is (unfortunately for the OP) "yes".

Implications of CC-BY-SA

CC-BY-SA is the name of a Creative Commons license, the "BY" means "by attribution" meaning essentially that the licensee (Stack Exchange Inc.) can modify or distribute the original content only if they give attribution to the original author, and the "SA" means "share-alike" which just means that when copies of the work is shared it must be shared with a license that is the same (or not more restrictive) than the original license.

Do we have a legal right to know when a link to a fundraiser is removed?

The CC-BY-SA license is a copyright licence. This is the definition of copyright from Wikipedia:

"Copyright is a type of intellectual property that gives its owner the exclusive right to make copies of a creative work, usually for a limited time."

Notice the word "creative". Sure you can argue that the link to the fundraiser was "creative", but let's look at what legally qualifies as "creative":

"Copyright may apply to a wide range of creative, intellectual, or artistic forms, or "works". Specifics vary by jurisdiction, but these can include poems, theses, fictional characters, plays and other literary works, motion pictures, choreography, musical compositions, sound recordings, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, computer software, radio and television broadcasts, and industrial designs."

Sure, this is not a "complete" list, but I doubt there's a judge in the world that would stretch the word "creative" to include a link to a fundraiser. Therefore, links to fundraisers are not protected by CC-BY-SA or any copyright license.

How do I know this?

I used to (sometimes) hate when people forwarded my emails without my permission. I began putting a copyright notice below my emails, saying that I own the copyright to what I write (which does turn out to be true) and that the receiver doesn't by default have permission to redistribute (forward) the email without asking me. Legally, this is enough for a copyright to be legally binding:

"In all countries where the Berne Convention standards apply, copyright is automatic, and need not be obtained through official registration with any government office. Once an idea has been reduced to tangible form, for example by securing it in a fixed medium (such as a drawing, sheet music, photograph, a videotape, or a computer file), the copyright holder is entitled to enforce his or her exclusive rights."

but only if the work is "eligible" to be protected by copyright (see the section immediately before this one).

Conclusion

CC-BY-SA is there to protect the creative work that volunteers do when writing things like questions, answers, and every tag wiki. But a link to a fundraiser is not eligible for copyright, and therefore not protected by CC-BY-SA, and therefore the OP's argument that CC-BY-SA requires authors to be informed when their work protected by copyright is changed, would not likely hold water in any court of law in the world.

This does not mean that it was nice for SE to remove people's links to fundraisers without telling them. At the same time, if you're reading this, you probably like participating in SE and might appreciate that if a fundraiser (not necessarily the specific one in question here!) to sue SE is successful enough, SE could find themselves owing millions of dollars to someone, which they can't afford, which might mean the end of SE. Still I think it would not have harmed SE to have told users that they edited the profiles, but they didn't legally have to, and I don't see what difference that would have made for the users that were trying to raise money: the links would go down whether or not the users were told.

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  • 1
    I'm definitely not a lawyer, so take my criticism with a grain of salt, but I don't think you have the right approach here. I don't think whether the link by itself is under protection is the right question. If the about me section of a profile as a whole is indeed covered (which appears to be true based on OP's opening line), then the link is within the contents of said protected work, and protected as a result.
    – zcoop98
    Dec 17, 2020 at 22:36
  • Since copyright doesn't cover names, titles, slogans, or even domain names, I'd agree it doesn't cover links; but if the About Me section is covered as a whole, then it would apply to all of its contents, including the link. I believe it would be the same as SE going into someone's bio and changing a sentence or image, for example.
    – zcoop98
    Dec 17, 2020 at 22:42
  • @zcoop98 We can have an academic debate about what certain lines of legislation mean and what they don't; and what would be covered and would would not. But typically your opinion or mine doesn't count much if we want to use the "law" in any way: it's appointed judges that make decisions about how legislation is to be interpreted (or they give guidelines to a jury of citizens). If someone in the past spent the money to enter a legal battle with a company in a high enough court, the judge's ruling in that case becomes "case law". Otherwise, we can only assume how a judge would interpret, and I Dec 17, 2020 at 23:52
  • am very certain that a link to a fundraiser, will not qualify as "eligible" for copyright. You can't copyright a domain name to a fundraiser webpage for example. The list you gave of things that cannot fall under Copyright, is not the complete list. I'm sure "link to fundraiser" will not be included. Anyway the question is less and less interesting the more I think about it, because the OP agrees that the user profiles can be changed, just that they should be told when changes are made. If the link can come down, what difference does it make for your fundraiser if you are told or not? Dec 17, 2020 at 23:54
  • You have a fair point- there will only ever be a "right" answer here if or when it actually gets put to the test through formal legal action. That said, I still disagree with you on the grounds that, for hypothetical example, if I copyright a book of my writings that happens to contain a URL within its text, and then you remove said link before you distribute it as my work, you've conclusively broken my copyright. This appears to be what has gone on here, unless some other behind-the-scene details are at play, or if I've missed something.
    – zcoop98
    Dec 17, 2020 at 23:59
  • @zcoop98 I understand that example, and yes it can be argued that the "user profile" as a whole is a "creative piece of work", but judges think very differently from mathematicians and computer programs. Is this really an issue of compromising the creative value of a piece of work without giving the user notice so that they can make adjustments (for example have they changed something from red to blue which makes the artist believe the work is now significantly worse, or have they changed your SO answer to the point where it's not a good answer, and not told you so that you can adjust it)? Dec 18, 2020 at 3:11
  • Next, what are the plaintiffs really seeking here? To get financial compensation for the money that was not donated to their fundraiser due to the advertisement being taken down? I don't think so! Money for the psychological trauma caused by not being told that the URL was removed from their profile? You are realistically not going to get enough from this for it to be worth your legal expenses, and the psychological trauma of going through a legal battle. Look: a lot of people were upset by what happened in 2019, but I don't think SE broke the law by not telling people about removing the URLs. Dec 18, 2020 at 3:18
  • Interesting that gnat didn't award the bounty Dec 23, 2020 at 21:07
  • 1
    So if I wrap the link within a poem, then it is protected (providing the poem is creative :-))?
    – MC Emperor
    Mar 25, 2021 at 13:42

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